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Editorial: Save Palisades to ease state to zero-carbon future

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is throwing a Hail Mary pass to keep the Palisades power plant open. She needs the plant to continue operating to meet her ambitious goal to make Michigan carbon neutral by 2050.

Saving the nuclear facility will be a scramble, though. The owner of Palisades, New Orleans-based Entergy Nuclear Operations Inc., hopes to transfer its operating license to another company, Holtec International of New Jersey, by the end of next month.

Holtec will decommission the plant and take it off the grid — unless Whitmer's plan to keep it running succeeds.

The state is seeking federal aid to keep Palisades operating. The owners have also indicated they would be willing to sell the plant on the shores of Lake Michigan to a company that would continue producing power there.

More: Whitmer backs federal aid to stop closure of Palisades nuclear plant

But a potential operator has yet to be found.

Last week, the U.S. Department of energy offered a lifeline to Palisades by announcing it would seek applications for a $6 billion Civil Nuclear Credit Program. The grants are designed to subsidize nuclear plants that are licensed to continue operations but are closing due to financial pressure.

Applications for the grants are due May 19. The 50-year-old Palisades is licensed through 2031. It employs 600 people. 

The issue with the plant is the cost of the power it produces, which is 57% more expensive per megawatt hour than the market price for energy. The federal subsidy would bring down that cost and make the power Palisades generates more competitive. 

Whitmer has set a goal of meeting all of Michigan's power needs with green energy by 2050. Keeping Palisades online for at least another nine years will make that transition somewhat easier.

Nuclear power production has lagged in the United States because of the tremendous expense of building a plant, and the extended amount of time it takes to get through the licensing and permit process. But nuclear power must be on the list of options to replace fossil fuel plants.

If the cost of bringing a plant online and building time could be reduced, nuclear offers a stable base load source of clean and reliable energy. The carbon footprint of nuclear energy is virtually zero. 

Just two nuclear power plants are under construction in the United States. Both are in Georgia, and they are billions of dollars over budget and well behind schedule.

Nuclear accounts for roughly 20% of energy production nationwide, though that has declined with the permanent closure of a dozen facilities over the past decade.

Along with Palisades, the Diablo plant in California is also scheduled to go offline. The initial round of grants from the federal rescue program are tailored to keep Palisades and Diablo open.

But even with the subsidy money, willing operators still must be found. Consumers Energy, which buys power from Palisades, has said it is not interested in operating the plant.

Finding an operator will be the next challenge for the governor, once the grant is in hand. It's a long shot, but worth the effort. It recognizes that Michigan remains far away from meeting all of its energy needs from renewable resources alone.